Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Universal Worship

There is a really cool comment thread going on over at Bill Tammeus’s blog! It started with a post about a Scottish worship service for people who believe in God but do not care for religion. They call them “universal worship experiences,” and describe them this way: “Rather than being based around stories about Jesus Christ, Muhammed or Buddha, the sermons will focus on universal themes such as love, how people can conduct their lives in a peaceful manner, support one another and respect the planet.”

It seems to be an attempt to offer a worship experience to people who are disillusioned, discontinued, or generally disgusted with organized religion. The responses on Bill’s blog are really fascinating, and worth a few minutes of reading. I can best summarize them this way – (and this is not labeling, not over-simplifying, just summarizing!)

- Some say, how can this be authentic, theologically sound worship? It seems to be a bunch of people creating God in their own image and making themselves feel comfortable about what they believe without the rigor scripture or tradition to hold them accountable.

- Some say, this is a good thing for people with faith in God, but no faith in how God has been codified by humanity. This experience frees people to worship the God who is, who was, and who ever shall be, instead of the God that a specific group of people describes and defines according to their own cultural lens.

- Still others say, I have found a spiritual home, and am quite happy with my religion, my relationship with God, my particular path. However, my path to God may not be yours, and so an experience like this, while it wouldn’t work so well for me, may create for someone else an opportunity to encounter God, and so it should be encouraged.

- Finally, there is probably a group who is reacting by shrugging their shoulders and saying, I don’t really know enough about this endeavor to make a judgment yet.

I think I am mostly in the third group there. I am Christian - incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and all that kind of stuff. But I am also pretty firmly committed to the idea that being a stumbling block for another person’s relationship with God is not a good idea. In fact, scripture records some pretty harsh words, uttered by none other than my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and echoed other places, about those who are stumbling blocks to others. (Something about a millstone around your neck, if I remember correctly.)

I lament that I may be a stumbling block getting in the way of someone’s relationship with God just because I am a Christian, but there it is. Right or wrong, the perception is out there. I saw a "Family Guy" episode recently where Brian said, “Let’s see, ‘Believe like I do or else I’ll hurt you.’ Yep, sounds like a church!” I have spoken with numerous people who have said, “I’d like to come to church, but I don’t feel like I will be accepted there.” A friend recently emailed me, “Considering the hatefulness and exclusivism and intolerance I hear every week in church, I sometimes wonder if I’m wasting my time being a Christian.” It was not the first time I had heard such a sentiment.

I want, with all of my heart, for all people to be in right relationship with God, and I believe that God wants that, too. If my stubborn insistence that they do things my way is a stumbling block causing them to sin, that is, keeping them from living in right relationship with God, then I must give up that stubborn insistence and seek another way to set the stage so that God might enter the scene.

Maybe an interfaith, low pressure, relevant and meaningful worship service will be how God enters the hearts of people for whom walking through the doors of a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque building would be unthinkable. (As a friend wrote recently, “Feels like a lion being thrown to the Christians.”) I believe God is powerful enough to work in the midst of anything, and will find a way to work in the midst of a “Universal Worship Service,” too. Maybe they are creating God in their own image, but maybe God can find a way to work with that. If they are unreceptive to encountering God in a traditional religion anyway, trying something a little theologically “iffy” couldn’t hurt, could it?


openmind said...

Hey Andy B,
I wandered over from the KC star blog and I would like to thank you for your willingness to explore the basis for others beliefs. I think you have done a very good job of capturing all view points. I grow tired of "Christians" telling that what I feel is "watered down" or "not real" and that I am going to hell. I have to constantly remind myself that not all Christians share these views. It is refreshing to see someone with an open heart and I think that you are a great example of what it means to truly embrace God’s love.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Andy & openmind, I can't stress enough how much you should check out the Phoenix Affirmations at . There are a lot more Christians with open hearts than you think, and we need to hang together (and with brothers/sisters of other beautiful faiths - see affirmation 1!) -howie

Clayton Peak said...

Dear Andy,
It sounds as if the concept of "Universal Worship" has great potential to attract people who have otherwise felt disenfranchized by traditional communities of faith. As far as "making God in our own image", that charge has been rallied against Christians since day one. I myself would like to believe that the Holy Spirit guided the writers of Scripture and the early leaders of the Church when the codified the core beliefs of Christianity. But then again we always have to account for our tendency as humans to "hear what we want to hear" when it comes to divine revelation. Thus today we have a large diversity of communities which claim the name Christian, and yet many of them hold sharply opposing views.

In my humble opinion, what matters most to God is that people find love and participate in a supportive community of faith. If people can find Godly love and a faithful community through "Universal Worship", then more power to them. Whether or not their theology is "kosher", I'll let God be the judge.
Keep the Faith!

Kansas Bob said...

Hi Andy,

About ...

"I lament that I may be a stumbling block getting in the way of someone’s relationship with God just because I am a Christian, but there it is. Right or wrong, the perception is out there."

... it seems that Jesus specialized in being a stumbling block for religious leaders who wanted God on their own terms ... not everyone who attends/leads a religious group has a relationship with God.

At the same time Jesus had compassion for people who needed him most. I agree with you that the heart of His mission is encapsulated in ...

"the whole good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.""

... sad that many feel that they don't need Jesus and feel that they can accomplish His mission without Him.

Anonymous said...

It is sad to say, but I understand why so many people are turned off by the Christians they read about and hear speaking out. For so many of them, there is nothing loving or Christ-like in what they do or say or believe. The rest of us need to be much more intentional and vocal about letting the world know that we do not judge them, we do not think our beliefs are somehow better or truer than theirs, but rather that our faith system makes sense and works for us just as theirs does for them. I love the bumper sticker that reads "CoeXisT" with the "C" being the moon of Islam, the "X" the Star of David and the "T" the cross. Why must we arrogantly insist that anyone who doesn't believe as we do is wrong? This is the thing that wars are made of. This is the thing that keeps the Kingdom of God from ever being "on earth as it is in heaven". cb

Larry B said...

Gosh I'm sorry I missed out on the intial thread over at Bill's blog.

I'd like to take a position of minor dissent here, and I'm especially fascinated by Openminds position. Openmind if you are willing to converse a little further I'd be curious to kow your thoughts on a few things.

First of all, I would like to clarify, that I don't want to dispute anyones particular point of view specifically, these are just my lines of thought.

I accept that there is a central idea that one of the main charactersitics of Christianity is that it teaches that love is at the core of our faith. I think some of the conversation has indicated that a "universal love" is an exclusive paradigm or at least an overriding paradigm.

If I look at what I know from scriptures, I don't find "universal love" as part of Christ's mission. Specifically, as many have pointed out, he condemned religous leaders in public and with what could be considered as quite vitreolic exchanges. If I were a faithful Jewish peson at the time and happened to walk by one of these exchanges, do I understand Jesus to be preaching "universal love and compassion"?

Perhaps carrying this line of reasoning a little too far, why is it that many of the poor and opressed seem to be included in Jesus's vision of the Kingdom of heaven, but the religious leaders, and even the righteous rich man were apparently left out?

A "universal love and compassion" would seem to need to include those who Jesus singled out as not being included. That's why I particularly don't subscribe to an idea of "universal love". Perhaps the "universal love" I'm describing here isn't what everyone is talking about so forgive me if I missed the point.

This leads me to my first question for Openmind (if you're still here). If I accept your premise that we each essentially create our own reality (paraphrasing from some of your comments on Bill's blog), I think you are saying you are accepting of other's viewpoints until their created reality begins to conflict with yours at a level where their reality creates some disturbance in your personal being.

To use your example, when their reality leads them to tell you that your reality is "watered down" and "not real", you expressed frustration and look for affirmation that this is not a normal view.

How do you decide when this is the case?

Thanks for the great link and keeping the conversation going here Andy.

openmind said...

hey larry,
I literally only have a sec now, but I wanted to let you know that I have checked this and will reply to your points either tomorrow or Monday. Also, dont worry about offending me, I appreciate your respectful reply. Well, got to run, but have a great weekend and I will be back on here soon.

Michael said...

I am reminded of Jeremiah 23 in which preachers are admonished by the Lord for granting to the people a false sense of blessing and well-being. Not having experienced these worship services, however, I have no way of knowing if any lines are being crossed, but I will say that there are limits to what can be allowed. Where to draw the line, though, is the most difficult to define.

Is the love of the Lord God truly being embraced in such services? Is the Lord God Himself being worshipped and honored, or is the congregation doing whatever it can to make itself feel good about the gathering? The local Optimists Club can offer this as well; it does not make it a worship service.

I guess I don't get it.

openmind said...

Hello all,

I would like to respond to Larry B.’s question as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong or if you have any other questions) and then I have a couple of questions of my own.

Just because I get frustrated with others points of views does not mean that I do not accept their right to hold that viewpoint. That is to say, if one feels compelled by their beliefs to tell me that they don’t agree with my own stance I would never stand in their way. I do not require acceptance or affirmation from anyone to feel comfortable in my beliefs. I am really the only one who truly knows what I feel, and I am certain it is real. At the same time, it is human nature to get frustrated with those who constantly discount what you feel and to enjoy having others affirm your beliefs. In sum, just because I get frustrated with others “realities” does not mean I am not accepting of them. One place I do draw the line is if they attempt to restrict my ability to hold beliefs based on their own (which leads me to what Michael means by “allowed”).

Additionally, there are some who love to disrespect others beliefs and mock them for holding them. I do question whether the motivations behind these types of actions are all that Christian. It is one thing to respectfully disagree; it is another to mock people and throw insults.

A couple of questions I have is why does God reveal himself to us at all and why does the Bible exist? Why does God send us Christ and why should we follow him? Why does God want us to have a relationship with Him? I think these are fundamental questions and your answers to them shape your personal perspective on Christianity. I know they are too many to really be answered on here, but I guess what I would like you to consider is, does God want us to worship him for the sake of worshipping him, or is there an end goal of this worship? Is there supposed to be an earthly manifestation of one’s relationship to God, and if so what is it?

Also, if either Howie or Andy are interested in meeting up, I am always interested in hearing others perspectives. Please feel free to email me at

Larry B said...

Thanks for the reply Openmind. I too am short on time at the moment. I will get back with some thoughts on your questions sometime in the next day or so.

Larry B said...

Ok - back for a response if anyone is still reading.

Openmind, it's interesting to me how you can be accepting of a view that conflicts at a core level with yours, such as when someone tells you that you are wrong, but I suppose one could choose to view it that way.

"A couple of questions I have is why does God reveal himself to us"

Well, I think you look at this differently than I do, as you suspect the answer to that question leads you to a particular view of Christianity. I don't see it that way as I see the Old Testament as one group of peoples understanding of God's revelation to them. The new testatment is a collection of the revelation of Christ to some early followers.

I choose to adhere as closely to these scriptures as possible because I choose to accept their revelations.

I personally don't think anyone can think themselves into Christianity without some a priori knowledge of it. As a supporting argument to this, if you study buddhism, you find astonishing parallels between the teaching of the Buddha and Jesus, yet the Buddha ultimately concluded that there isn't a God as such, and that the ultimate path for a person is to enter into non-existence.

So I see the Buddha taking a personal journey building upon his own feelings, experience, and observations and coming to what I believe is a conclusion that by definition separated him from a God who had already revealed himself through the Jewish people.

Pauls encounter with the philosophers who had left an idol for an unkown God once again seems to support the idea, that an apriori knowledge of God through a scriptural tradition is important in understanding his real character.

That ultimately is why I think God chose to bring specific revelation of himself in a specific manner.

"Why does the Bible exist?"

Pretty much the same as above - because God chose to bring revelation of himself and his character.

Why does God send us Christ and why should we follow him?

Again God explains his character through the revelations in the Old Testament to the Jewish people. Jesus specifically stated why he had come and why we should follow.

Why does God want us to have a relationship with Him?

The last question is answered in the creation story and the account of the fall.

Honestly, I don't particularly object to people deciding that they can connect to God outside the context of scripture - but it's a little disingenous in my opinion to attempt to brand themselves as Christian while rejecting some or all of the base ideas that scripture stands for. Let me clarify that before I get into trouble here. One Methodist Nishop in particular has decided that the resurrection of Jesus really didn't happen. That strikes at the core of Christian understanding.

Now some "Christians" may agree with that Bishop, but they really are diverging and should be honest enough to admit it and separate themselves from traditional Christianity in a clear way to allow for people to choose which belief system they wish to adhere to, rather than attempting to claim one belief system and then reject part of it.

That's all I can muster for now, I'll post on your worship questions later. Thanks again.